Tag Archives: nuclear industry

Nuclear Industry: France, Russia and China

Olkiluoto-3 under construction in 2009. It is scheduled to start electricity production in 2018, a delay of nine years. image from wikipedia

[Regarding the French nuclear company Areva] its newest product, the expensive European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), has encountered more than the teething problems common to all big industrial projects. A plant in Finland is almost ten years behind schedule and almost three times over budget: Areva has had to write off billions as a result….Two reactors in China and the only new-build in France, at Flamanville, are also running late. EDF played an important role in managing the Chinese and French projects.

Besides criticism for slack project management, Areva and EDF (Electricite de France) have been questioned over technical standards. The steel in the main reactor vessel at Flamanville is faulty, the Nuclear Safety Authority said in April 2015. EDF disputes the finding and, with Areva, has started new tests. The news added to growing disenchantment in Britain with an agreement, not yet firm, that expensively entrusts the construction of a power station incorporating two Areva EPRs to a consortium led by EDF.  It seems unlikely that Areva will find many more foreign takers for its existing reactor…

[S]ome of Areva’s rivals are racing ahead. Rosatom, a Russian nuclear firm, has built up a fat order-book. Keen pricing, generous financing and relaxed technology transfer help, though Western sanctions do not. China’s two reactor-builders, CNNC and CGN, are peddling their own new design, Hualong One; in February CNNC signed a preliminary agreement to supply a reactor to Argentina.

Areva has little reason to hope for a surge of new orders at home. France’s 58 reactors are elderly but EDF, which operates them, plans to revamp rather than replace them…A new law set to come into force this summer, pledging somehow to cut France’s dependence on nuclear power from 75% to 50% of its electricity needs by 2025, will make Areva’s prospects even bleaker.

Excerpts from France’s nuclear industry: Arevaderci, Economist, May 23, 2015, at 53.

Plutonium Production after Fukushima; the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

Last year’s tsunami disaster in Japan clouded the nation’s nuclear future, idled its reactors and rendered its huge stockpile of plutonium useless for now. So, the industry’s plan to produce even more has raised a red flag.  Nuclear industry officials say they hope to start producing a half-ton of plutonium within months, in addition to the more than 35 tons Japan already has stored around the world. That’s even though all the reactors that might use it are either inoperable or offline while the country rethinks its nuclear policy after the tsunami-generated Fukushima crisis.

“It’s crazy,” said Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, a leading authority on nonproliferation issues and a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. “There is absolutely no reason to do that.”  Japan’s nuclear industry produces plutonium — which is strictly regulated globally because it also is used for nuclear weapons — by reprocessing spent, uranium-based fuel in a procedure aimed at decreasing radioactive waste that otherwise would require long-term storage.  The industry wants to reprocess more to build up reserves in anticipation of when it has a network of reactors that run on a next-generation fuel that includes plutonium and that can be reused in a self-contained cycle — but that much-delayed day is still far off.  Japanese officials argue that, once those plans are in place, the reactors will draw down the stockpile and use up most of it by 2030.  “There is no excess plutonium in this country,” said Koichi Imafuku, an official at the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. “It’s not just lying around without purpose.”

In the meantime, the country’s post-Fukushima review of nuclear policy is pitting a growing number of critics who want to turn away from plutonium altogether against an entrenched nuclear industry that wants to push forward with it.  Other countries, including the United States, have scaled back the separation of plutonium because it is a proliferation concern and is more expensive than other alternatives, including long-term storage of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing remains unreliable and it is questionable whether it is a viable way of reducing Japan’s massive amounts of spent fuel rods, said Takeo Kikkawa, a Hitotsubashi University professor specializing in energy issues.  “Japan should abandon the program altogether,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a respected anti-nuclear Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center. “Then we can also contribute to the global effort for nuclear non-proliferation.”

Von Hippel stressed that only two other countries reprocess on a large scale: France and Britain, and Britain has decided to stop. Japan’s civilian-use plutonium stockpile is already the fifth-largest in the world, and it has enough plutonium to make about 5,000 simple nuclear warheads, although it does not manufacture them.  Because of inherent dangers of plutonium stockpiles, government regulations require industry representatives to announce by March 31 how much plutonium they intend to produce in the year ahead and explain how they will use it.

But, for the second year in a row, the industry has failed to do so. They blame the government for failing to come up with a long-term policy after Fukushima, but say they nevertheless want to make more plutonium if they can get a reprocessing plant going by October.  Kimitake Yoshida, a spokesman for the Federation of Electric Power Companies, said the plutonium would be converted into MOX — a mixture of plutonium and uranium — which can be loaded back into reactors and reused in a cycle. But technical glitches, cost overruns and local opposition have kept Japan from actually putting the moving parts of that plan into action.

In the meantime, Japan’s plutonium stockpile — most of which is stored in France and Britain — has swelled despite Tokyo’s promise to international regulators not to produce a plutonium surplus.  Its plutonium holdings have increased fivefold from about 7 tons in 1993 to 37 tons at the end of 2010. Japan initially said the stockpile would shrink rapidly in early 2000s as its fuel cycle kicked in, but that hasn’t happened.

Critics argue that since no additional spent fuel is being created, and there are questions about how the plutonium would be used, this is not a good time start producing more. They also say it makes no sense for Japan to minimize its plutonium glut by calling it a “stockpile” rather than a “surplus.”  “It’s a simple accounting trick,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s laughable. And it sends the wrong signal all around the world.”

Officials stress that, like other plutonium-holding nations, Japan files a yearly report detailing its stockpile with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has repeatedly failed to live up to its own schedules for how the plutonium will be used.  From 2006 until three years ago, the nuclear industry said the plutonium-consuming MOX fuel would be used in 16-18 conventional reactors “in or after” 2010. In fact, only two reactors used MOX that year. By the time of the earthquake and tsunami last year, the number was still just three — including one at the Fukushima plant.  In response to the delays, the industry has simply revised its plans farther off into the future. It is now shooting for the end of fiscal 2015.

“There really is a credibility problem here,” said Princeton’s von Hippel, who also is a member of the independent International Panel on Fissile Materials. “They keep making up these schedules which are never realized. I think the ship is sinking beneath them.”

By ERIC TALMADGE and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile, Associated Press, June 2, 2012

See also http://www.jnfl.co.jp/english/

Nuclear Futures: Risks of industry-state collusion and geological instability

A year after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Taiwan finds itself, like many countries around the world, having to make a difficult choice between retreating from nuclear energy or committing further to it.  Yet no other country faces quite the same set of circumstances shared by the two East Asian neighbors, a combination of need and risk that guarantees whatever decision is made will be painful…

Taiwan has three nuclear power stations, two in the north and one in the south. All have operated safely and profitably for many years while providing nearly 20 percent of the island’s electricity.  But the facilities are getting old — the oldest is slated for decommissioning in 2018 and another in 2019.  Construction of a fourth plant began in 1998 in New Taipei City on the northeast coast, but various shutdowns due to engineering problems and policy reversals have delayed its completion.  The builder and operator of the facility, Taiwan Power Co., recently agreed to hire Japanese technicians to resolve problems discovered during construction, with officials hoping the new facility will become operational by 2014.  These technicians will be available because of the Japanese government’s freeze on new nuclear projects following the Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns — a policy many in Taiwan wish their government would also adopt.

Many of the arguments against the new plant in New Taipei City are the same ones made by opponents of nuclear energy worldwide. Some say it is too expensive, with overruns pushing the cost to nearly 300 billion New Taiwan dollars ($10 billion), nearly double initial projections.  Others point to the irresolvable problems of radiation leaks and disposal of nuclear waste.  Some criticize the facility because of its proximity to the island’s densely populated north. Others point out the length of time the project has taken to complete, meaning that its design and equipment have already become outdated.

Taiwanese authorities have tried to address the concerns, heightening official oversight and granting access to the press and nongovernmental agencies. A temporary facility for low-level radioactive waste is already operating on Orchid Island off Taiwan’s southeastern coast and the first interim dry storage facility for spent fuel rods will be completed at the reactor site in the latter part of this year for operation from 2013. [See also Nuclear Waste Exports]

Opponents are skeptical, however, and none more so than those who live near the new plant. They question the lack of a comprehensive disaster-management plan and express a deep distrust of authorities from whom they foresee the same slack regulation and industry-government collusion that doomed Fukushima No. 1.  “A lesson we learn from Japan’s nuclear disaster is that we can only depend on ourselves,” said a local resident who gave only his surname, Wu.

Of course, the most glaring similarity with Japan is not Taiwan’s regulatory shortcomings, but their mutual geological instability — both are at the convergence of major tectonic plates on the western Pacific Rim….  Similar [to Fukushima] natural disasters have occurred in Taiwan in the past and some worry about history repeating itself….

The most compelling argument in favor of nuclear development in Taiwan is again one it shares with Japan — there is little alternative.  As a modern industrial economy, Taiwan, like its neighbor, depends on cheap, reliable electrical power while possessing virtually no indigenous sources of fuel for generation.  Taiwan imports 99 percent of its energy, most of it coal, oil and natural gas. If it phases out nuclear power production by 2025, as critics propose, the Ministry of Economic Affairs estimates the additional cost to generate electricity with alternative energy sources would be more than NT$480 billion from 2014 to 2030.  If the electricity generated by the three nuclear power plants were eliminated, reserve capacity would drop from 20 percent to 6 percent, Taipower claims.

Excerpts, By KO SHU-LING, Taiwan, Japan share atomic power dilemma, Japan Times, Apr. 11, 2012

Getting Rid of Nuclear Power is Just a Dream, Japan

Many Japanese have grown uneasy with nuclear power since the March 11 tsunami, which left more than 20,000 dead or missing and sent a plant in Fukushima into meltdown. Anti-nuke protesters took to the streets, and a heated debate ensued over the future of atomic energy. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 55 percent of Japanese want to reduce the number of reactors in the country.

Six months later, though, the nation seems to be sticking with nuclear power, at least for now. Unlike Germany, which accelerated plans to phase out atomic energy after Fukushima, Japan shows no signs of doing so. In recent days, utilities began newly mandated earthquake and tsunami stress tests, a first step toward restarting reactors idled for maintenance.

The world’s third-largest economy lacks other sources such as coal. An island nation, it can’t easily buy electricity from neighbors, as Germany can from France. Alternative energy is expensive. And nuclear technology is the nation’s pride, even a lucrative export.  Moreover, consensus-oriented Japan doesn’t have an outspoken public saying “No” to nuclear power. In a society that frowns upon defiance of the government, many Japanese are reluctant to join a movement that is often discredited as eccentric, even after Fukushima. That means Japan’s leaders have no real need to reject an industry that has helped fuel the country’s prosperity for decades.

March 11 may yet prove to be Japan’s Three Mile Island moment. No new plants have been approved in the U.S. since the 1979 disaster, and Japan has canceled two new ones already and shelved plans to increase its reliance on nuclear power from 30 to 50 percent.  [But]

Power shortages since the tsunami, coupled with an unusually sweltering summer, have helped business and its backers in government win the argument that Japan can’t afford to shut down its reactors.  The nuclear industry also benefits from close government ties. Bureaucratic ranks are packed with former utility executives. The same ministry both promotes and regulates nuclear power. Such relationships have endured, despite revelations of past cover-ups of radiation leaks and safety violations.

In the half year since the tsunami, commuter trains have often been dark inside, dizzyingly hot and more packed than usual because of reduced schedules. Neon lights disappeared from once-glitzy urban landscapes. Messages flashed on the Internet and electronic billboards, ominously warning about electricity use versus supply.  Manufacturers scrambled to cope. For automakers, the juggling included running assembly plants over the weekend and closing Thursday and Friday to reduce peak demand. “It has been totally exhausting,” said Toshiyuki Shiga, chief operating officer of Nissan Motor Co.

Before he resigned last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power and develop solar, wind and other sources. But he later played that down as his personal view and has since been replaced by Yoshihiko Noda, who is expected to be more willing to go along with industry-friendly bureaucrats.

Hiroshi Kainuma, a sociologist who has researched Fukushima, said residents of what he calls “nuclear villages” fear life without a plant. “Almost subconsciously, in their everyday, they have grown to support nuclear power,” he said.

Excerpts from YURI KAGEYAMA, Post-tsunami Japan sticking with nuclear power,Associated Press, Sept. 10, 2011

The Future of Nuclear Industry after Fukushima:unbeatable renaissance

US investors have been far too focused on the domestic policy toward nuclear power plants and the long lead time required building new reactors. But the reality is that the nation has only one new reactor under construction right now and nine in advanced stages of planning. Compare that to the 27 reactors under construction in China and the 50 additional reactors in advanced stages of planning.  While the US has growth stories of its own, the growth story for nuclear power, much like the growth story for oil and natural gas demand, is centered in the emerging markets.

61 reactors are under construction around the world, with a total maximum capacity of 65 GW. Furthermore, as Jim Fink describes in his recent Investing Daily article, Investing in Nuclear Power Remains a Compelling Choice , in addition to the 61 nuclear reactors under construction right now, 150 more are planned to come online over the next 10 years.

China is home to almost half of all nuclear power capacity (measured in GW) under construction. If we add in India, Russia and South Korea, the total jumps to well over 80 percent. The US, France, Canada and other developed markets are building reactors, but these projects account for only a tiny share of the 65 GW of capacity under construction.

Emerging markets have been even more vociferous in their defense of nuclear power. Five days after the earthquake crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, China halted approvals for new reactors until a safety review could be conducted and new safety plans put in place. But inspections are already winding down, and the country plans to release its new safety plan and resume approvals in August. Senior Chinese officials have indicated that the country will meet its target of 70 GW of nuclear power capacity by 2020 despite the post-Fukushima freeze.  China can rightfully claim that its fleet of reactors is among the safest in the world because the country is building third-generation plants such as the Westinghouse AP1000, an advanced reactor that can be cooled without access to external power sources. This feature would have prevented the partial meltdown at Fukushima.

Russia also ordered a safety review of its nuclear power plants, but the government has unequivocally stated that it will not abandon nuclear power and will continue to build new power plants. Russia also continues to build plants in other nations, including planned Russian-designed reactors in Turkey and Belarus. In fact, the latter deal was inked after the earthquake hit Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has long been a proponent of nuclear power and has criticized Germany’s anti-nuclear stance on several occasions. For example, at a conference in late 2010, Putin chided German business leaders about the country’s plan to gradually phase out its nuclear reactors, observing that “The German public does not like the nuclear power industry for some reason” and adding “I cannot understand what fuel you will take for heating.” He followed up this comment with an incisive joke: You do not want gas, you do not develop the nuclear power industry, so you will heat with firewood?…Then you will have to go to Siberia to buy the firewood.”

But Germany’s decision to accelerate the closure of its nuclear plants will have Russian gas producers laughing all the way to the bank: Germany will need to import more natural gas to offset lost nuclear power capacity and provide baseload power to support the country’s growing dependence on renewable energy sources. Germany already imports more than half of its natural gas from Russia.  Russia’s aggressive build-out of nuclear plants in recent years is partly motivated by a desire to free up more natural gas for export. Ironically, this means that Russia is building nuclear power plants to support Germany’s efforts to shut down its domestic reactors.

Finally, India also ordered a safety review of its nuclear reactors, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has emphasized repeatedly that India must make use of nuclear power to meet its growing demand for electricity and emissions targets. Singh stated that safety standards for new Indian reactors would be world-class and that the country stands by its target of increasing nuclear capacity from about 5,000 megawatts ( MW ) today to 20,000 MW by 2020. Singh stated that further expansion is possible after 2020, though no firm decisions have been made.

In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, many speculated that the Fukushima disaster would strangle the global nuclear renaissance. This jaundiced projection hasn’t come to fruition. Countries that were already anti-nuclear have hardened their stance, but the growth story is intact in China, India, Russia and other emerging markets. In short, the worst accident since Chernobyl has had a surprisingly modest impact on the global nuclear power industry.

Elliott Gue, Developing Markets Driving Growth for Nuclear Energy, NASDAQ, Aug. 3, 2011